6 MARCH 1880, Page 9


WE wonder if there is any truth at all in the idea that great events tend to produce great men, that the effect of immense changes, striking catastrophes, vivid life generally in the world, is to raise the standard of thought in the communi- ties affected or conscious of what is passing, and, of course, greatly to elevate the few who stand above the average. That idea used to be considered a common-place, and we were told that the great men of the Reformation time were the natural product of an era in which the old ideas of cos- mogony were abandoned, and even "the sapphire vault rolled itself away," and old creeds were flung into the cru- cible, and adventure discovered a new world ; and that the great ones, warriors, poets, statesmen, of Elizabeth's day were the resulting flowers of a time in which events like the Armada were but incidents. It is pleasant to believe such things, to think that great intellectual stir, with all its pains, has such a compensation as this, or that a grand war may evolve a grand generation of men; but we are not sure that the belief is well founded, rather conceive that the world often confuses stir- ring times with intellectual stir. The man who discovered America, though till he died he never knew it, but thought he had reached Asia by another route, was a great character, or he would not have triumphed. But did the discovery of America make anybody very big ? The Spaniards, who did most of it, and at first profited most by it, were not large men; and Raleigh might have been as great as he was, though he had never dreamed of gold mines. Most of the figures which emerged during the French Revolutionary epoch were rather small, and the succeeding age did not develope any very especially lofty standard,—our own history, for ex- ample, under George IV. not being exceptionally noble. The grandly dramatic time of modern Italy, the years during which she secured her unity, did not produce either any grand figures or a very lofty people, the great men of Italy—Cavour, Gari- baldi, Ricasoli, D'Azeglio, and the rest—having been matured before the great events, not by them. They were bred in a stifling atmosphere and amidst the pettiest details, in countries where a new opera was hailed as an event, and an attempted assassination was an enormous incident. The American Civil War was for North America an immensely "big thing." None of us fairly realised how immense an affair it was, considered merely as a war; how completely it involved the future of a continent ; how definitely the opposing principles of privilege and equality, caste and humanity, fought out in that series of battles their quarrel to the death. It is difficult to exaggerate that event as an event, but we do not see that the four years of it produced specially great Americans, or raised the American average in any perceptible degree. General Grant is the biggest American still, and politics are as little marked by grandeur of aim as ever. Germans and Frenchmen are not greater after their cataclysm, though a great defeat, no doubt, sobered the whole French people ; and in the vivid liveliness of to-day, when catastrophes are incidents, and wars yearly events, and we watch revolutions through spy-glasses, there are no very patent signs of elevation. We write always with the reserve that but little can ever be visible to one set of eyes, but we should say Germany had declined intel- lectually since 1865, that England had grown baser morally, and that France, though quieter, had become less French, had exhibited fewer of the special gifts of her peculiar genius. Strong men, or men of genius, find their careers in the times of great events ; but they have usually grown in the little times, not the big, and have hated the little times very hard. Cavour was not trained by victory, but before victory ; and Bismarck cultivated both his powers and his ttgipic while diplomatist at the Russian and French Courts, and repre- sentative of Prussia at that intolerable Frankfort Diet, which con- sidered him a hero because he dared to smoke before the Austrian Ambassador, and so gave courage to the Bavarian, the Saxon, and the Badener to take out cigarettes. Is it not rather the truth that great events, when, after long preparation, they occur,

sometimes release a few strong men from fetters—not always, for the American Civil War released nobody, unless it were Boss Tweed—who when released have thenceforward, for good or evil, the place and power of leaders ; but do not produce such men, and exercise but very slight direct effect upon the body of the communities which witness or which share in them, and which either do not fully perceive them, or are bewildered and daunted by them as men are by mountains ? The dramatist who passed life upon the stage, watching scenes and rehearsals of scenes, would not produce great work ; nor is it in the midst of noise that musi- cians have learned most often to compose. It is in peace that men's souls grow, not amid the rush of events which, if they lasted long, would possibly even lower the mental standard, just as the long-continued barbaric invasions are believed to have lowered the standard among the citizens of the Roman Empire.

That is a bad illustration, because we know so little of the actual mental attitude of the true "Romans" of the Barbarian period, who may have displayed more resource, more energy, and more self-devotion than historians give them credit for ; but let us take the question down to our own day. No illustration could be better than that of the American Civil War, which was not accom- panied. or followed by any elevation in the national standard, or any production of great men ; and there is one even nearer home. We are all living now in what, if we thought about it as pos- terity will think, would appear a very wonderful fraction of time,—a bit of the Victorian Era, crammed with great events, as well as with incidents which, if not great, have a certain scenic grandeur of effect. The world was never more alive. There never was a time when the world was more conscious of stir, of great events happening and about to happen, of the birth of new and great things, of issues of the highest moment being almost hourly raised. Every nation is waiting for some- thing which it feels will not be small. All Europe, the only civilised portion of the Old World, is arming for war in such fashion that, five years hence, the young man who says he has not been a soldier will, in saying it, confess that he is either a cripple or a priest. The greatest in extent of European countries is shaken to its centre with revolutionary and anti-revolutionary passion, till such events as the destruction of its capital by fire, of its educated class by popular massacre, of its dynasty by explosions, are spoken of as we speak of possible and not very extraordinary occurrences. Europe stood listening on March 2nd to hear if St. Petersburg survived. In every country it is felt that a slight incident, such as the death of an old King or of a single states- man, might produce a cataclysm or consequences which would deflect the course of all future history. In all countries men are listening, as it were, for telegrams which may bring an- nouncements of events such as in other ages occupied years, and were the subjects of histories and poems. Even in our own land, where events are usually smaller, the fall of an entire system of polity, which reaches in its effects over the whole world, may be, and it is known may be, immediately at hand, while the whole community is struggling fiercely for and against radically opposed ideas. Events could hardly be upon a larger scale, while they affect and are watched by communities which should feel them thoroughly, for they are communities just now supposed to be greatly stirred with intellectual life, discussing all things, testing all things, inquiring first of all into all things, full of mental movement, and, as is supposed, of mental force and vigour. Certainly, they are full of curiosity and speculation, and a kind of persistent, though not very careful, watchfulness. It is an age, or a bit of an age, which historians will some day study and record as the French do their Revolution, till we can remember it almost hour by hour. And yet it would be difficult to show that these great events in this susceptible age are either breeding great men, or greatly elevating the national standard of any nation's life. Where are the new great men ? Certainly they are not here, where the nation looks helplessly for guidance to two septuagenarians ; or in Germany, where one man is so completely all in all that the nation has no brain but his, and would be distracted by his death; or in France, where each successive Ministry is declared inferior to the last, or in Italy, whence we have nothing but murmurings, with neither force nor purpose in them, and no sign either of strong men coming or of national elevation. The statesmen living among events are no keener or stronger, nor are the people any the more noble. We should say, indeed, that, except possibly in France, where defeat has done good work, there was a slight but per-

ceptible decline both in the morale and the mental power of the nations,—evidence, faint but distinct, of weariness an.d ex- haustion, as if a time of slumber, of reparation of forces, had become indispensable. We are too near and the space is too vast for any of us to see clearly, but the body of evidence seems to tend that way ; and certainly there is no proof of the wide-spread improvement which, if the old idea were correct, would be present or at hand. May it not be alto- gether incorrect, and the effect of a rush of great events, particu- larly if it lasts long, be rather to bewilder and weaken, than to strengthen and develope men ? They feel unable to control such occurrences, to be pressed when required to understand them, to be hardly able even to keep up fully with their march. It is like striving to think in a theatre just when the lowered lights and the trembling music announce the approach of the denouement, and reason suspends itself before an expectation which is as much of the flesh as of the mind. It is an old remark that wherever nature is over-liberal man cowers and becomes dwarfed, feeling his energy inadequate to secure the mastery ; and we suspect something of that apprehension or sense of fatigue is begotten when events are too large, too frequent, or too swift. The multitude either make themselves stolid in re- sistance to their influence, the power of refusing to see being endless, or assert that only one or two men can control them, and so, giving up their own duty, become from that retreat defi- nitely, though it may be temporarily, feebler. That is the case with all politicians in Germany, and with Tories in England, and we cannot but fear that it is the case with the majority in all countries. It has been a wonderful time, this last decade, but the men who have passed through it are as little wonderful as ever.